MIAMI - The extradition of a Colombian drug kingpin to Miami early Saturday marks a fatal blow for the infamous Cali drug cartel, the largest and most sophisticated narcotics operation in history.
The demise of the Cali cartel is a major victory for U.S. law enforcement, experts agree. U.S. counternarcotics agents spent 13 years investigating Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, 65, and his brother Miguel, 61, who is awaiting extradition. To date, about 100 cartel members have been convicted and jailed.
The Colombian government has shown unprecedented cooperation in the extradition of drug traffickers in recent years. This on the heels of success in U.S.-funded drug crop eradication efforts in Colombia.
But skeptics question the impact on the overall war on drugs, pointing out that the price of cocaine on American streets remains low, meaning the supply is high. And the number of American drug users has not fallen significantly.
"Will the government succeed in further punishing major traffickers? Yes, I think so, and that is a legitimate and important objective," said Eric Sterling, president of the Maryland-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "But I can't see that these extraditions will have any deterrent effect on current cocaine producers or exporters."
New players long ago filled the shoes of the Cali cartel.
Principal among these is the North Valley cartel, which operates cocaine laboratories in the Cauca Valley, a rural area of western Colombia. Located just north of Cali, the North Valley cartel grew from the ashes of its more famous predecessor.
Its members enjoy close ties to Colombia's far-right paramilitary armies responsible for some of the country's worst human rights atrocities. This alliance created perhaps the most potent union in Colombia's drug war: a cartel capable of moving enormous loads of cocaine while financing the nation's most violent terrorists.
In the past year, federal prosecutors have issued a series of indictments against the North Valley cartel. In May, nine cartel members were charged with smuggling more than 450 tons of cocaine into the United States via Mexico since 1990, worth an estimated $10-billion.
In announcing the indictments, U.S. drug officials called the North Valley cartel "the most powerful and violent drug trafficking organization in Colombia," responsible for as much as 60 percent of the cocaine and heroin hitting American streets.
One of the cartel bosses, Diego Montoya, is listed alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. The State Department is offering a $5-million reward for information leading to his arrest.
In a separate indictment in Miami this year, Montoya, or "Don Diego" as he is known, was charged with operating a family cocaine business with two brothers and a cousin dating back to the mid 1980s.
Montoya, a bulky 230-pound former truck driver from the small town of Trujillo, started out as a "cook" in a cocaine laboratory in the valley. He rose up the ranks to become one of the cartel chiefs. He threw lavish parties at a large ranch home in the valley complete with private air strip and go-cart track, according to agents.
Early on, he was implicated in one of Colombia's most horrific massacres, in his hometown of Trujillo in the late 1980s.
A monument on a hill overlooking the town serves as a mass grave for the 117 villagers, mostly young men, kidnapped and executed over a period of months by Montoya's associates. The bodies, dismembered by chain saws, were dumped in the Cauca River.
Despite such atrocities, for many years the North Valley cartel operated quietly in the shadows of the bigger Medellin and Cali cartels. Several top cartel bosses were renegade former police officers. Protection was ensured through wholesale bribery of local police and prosecutors. Cartel hit men dealt with its enemies.
"They have been very well protected," said FBI special agent Hank Twehues, who has spent several years investigating the cartel. "Even more so than Medellin and Cali, they were successful in infiltrating the police at a certain level."
Between them, the Cali and North Valley cartels succeeded in penetrating and corrupting all principal government institutions in the western state of Valle, counterdrug agents say.
The drug trade tainted 80 percent of all commerce and industry in Cali, a city of more than 2-million inhabitants. The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were largely responsible for this, agents say. They were far more sophisticated than their bloody counterpart in Medellin, drug lord Pablo Escobar, who preferred to invest in land and cattle. The brothers specialized in merging their illegal drug assets in a maze of legitimate corporations, including a national chain of pharmacies with 8,000 employees.
The brothers were captured by Colombian police in 1995, but managed to work out a deal with the government by which they were each sentenced to six years in jail, although additional charges forced them to serve longer. By that time, they had built a financial empire worth between $1-billion and $2-billion, counterdrug agents say.
While in jail, they remained highly influential figures in the drug world. The U.S. Treasury Department continues to busily track their assets. It has a list of more than 150 companies and 200 individuals associated with the cartel in Colombia, the United States and Spain.
Only after the arrest of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers did agents begin to focus their attention on the North Valley.
In the late 1990s, U.S. Customs agents in New York began to notice that money wiring services were sending extraordinary sums of money to Colombia from the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan.
One money wiring business sent $70-million in three years, or $2-million a month.
After running a cross-check with the census for Colombian-born residents, they found that each one had to be sending $50,000 a year to account for the wired cash. The money transmitters were simply picking Hispanic names out of the New York City phone book to disguise the wire transfers of drug cash.
The North Valley cartel became the target of the largest multiagency money laundering task force in the United States, with U.S. and Colombian agents working closely with prosecutors in New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida.
Law enforcement pressure gradually began to have an impact. Agents found several cartel members had investments - as well as relatives - in Miami. Montoya set up his ex-wife and two sons in a $650,000 luxury apartment in north Miami Beach. His mother had a separate $674,000 condo in Aventura, according to Twehues.
Two sons attended an expensive private school in Miami. One of the boys, age 16, drove a $60,000 BMW sports car. The family also had a $3.5-million, 80-foot yacht docked near the apartment.
The properties were seized and the family forced to leave the country.
Another cartel boss, Miguel Solano, owned a $3-million mansion in tony Weston, in Broward County. He also had his own mega-yacht.
Last year the cartel was plunged into a bloody internal war over suspicions that some members were cooperating with government agents. Solano was the first to die, murdered outside a nightclub in Cartagena, a popular tourist city on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Since then hundreds more have been killed.
Colombian police and prosecutors also began to take action. A number of corrupt prosecutors in the cartel's pay were fired. And the government began seizing hundreds of properties of cartel bosses up and down the valley, including Montoya's ranch. Two senior figures were arrested - one in Panama, the other in Cuba - in the past six months.
In an attempt to duck out of sight, Montoya allegedly went as far as faking his own funeral, complete with coffin, mourners and a priest.
Montoya's two brothers and his cousin were also arrested in Colombia and are awaiting extradition to Miami. Montoya himself - and archrival Jaime Varela, alias "Soap" - remain at large in Colombia.
The combination of infighting and law enforcement pressure has greatly weakened the cartel, agents say. Still, a new generation of North Valley traffickers is emerging, many of them former lieutenants of the cartel's bosses.
The cartel continues to export cocaine, but time may be running out for Montoya and the others. The paramilitaries are themselves engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government.
Analysts agree that breaking up the alliance between drug traffickers and paramilitaries could go a long way to pacifying Colombia's long-running civil conflict.
But it likely won't be the end of the problem. As long as U.S. demand remains steady, Colombia's illicit drug trade will remain alive, experts say.
"The latest data on illicit drug prices in the United States show that the war on drugs is failing," according to a 400-page study published this week by the Washington Office on Latin America, a group often critical of U.S. policy in the region.
The study cited official government data from 2003 showing that cocaine and heroin prices are at, or near, all-time lows.
Government officials say updated figures yet to be released will soon bring more encouraging news.
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